Over the last few decades, housing vacancies have become more widespread in many American communities. That’s according to a new report published this week by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. But why is the problem so widespread, and what can communities do about it?
In a Policy Focus Report entitled The Empty House Next Door: Understanding and Reducing Vacancy and Hypervacancy in the United States, researcher Alan Mallach analyzes U.S. Census and Postal Service data for 15 American cities, ranging from San Francisco to Dallas to Boston. The report examines the increasing occurrences of “hypervacancy” in these cities, which the report defines as when at least one in five properties are vacant within a given area.
The report points out that, in 2015, more than 49 percent of Census tracts in Flint, Michigan, suffered from hypervacancy, “with more than a quarter of units vacant in each tract.” In Detroit, the number was 46 percent; in Gary, Indiana, it was 42 percent. The problem is on the rise in many American cities.
In the report, Mallach explains that these high levels of vacancy fundamentally disrupt the local housing markets. "Houses sell, if they sell at all, only to investors at rock bottom prices while the neighborhoods become areas of concentrated poverty, unemployment, and health problems."
Mallach also spotlights increases in the number of properties that have been “effectively abandoned”—unused, empty properties that are neither for sale nor for rent. According to the report, the number of units that are effectively abandoned has increased nationally from 3.7 million in 2005 to 5.8 million in 2016. That was an uptick of 2.1 million units—”roughly equal to five times the entire housing stock of San Francisco.”
The report lays out contributing factors that need to be addressed, such as convoluted foreclosure processes, but also highlights how various communities are working to combat the problem. According to the report, Baltimore has successfully put 1,300 units back into circulation since 2010, thanks to the use of receivership and partnerships with for-profit and non-profit developers.
The report also cites initiatives in Cleveland and Philadelphia that worked to demolish abandoned properties and convert the lots to community green space.
The report recommends that affected cities adopt better data collection strategies on their local vacancies, make it easier for the properties to be repurposed, and "balance demolition with rehabilitation as part of a larger strategy for revival.”